Rabbits are quiet, non-aggressive and do not require much in terms of food or space. They are easy to breed, and they make excellent manure, meat, and fur.
The expression “breed like rabbits” is no idle saying. Once you have set up a system that suits your rabbits, your does can produce almost more babies than you can keep up with.
The main factor that makes them so successful at reproducing is that they do not have any one specific time when they are fertile. Whereas most animals ovulate at a particular point in a cycle, does (female rabbits) can become pregnant whenever they encounter a buck (male). It is the stimulation that makes the eggs descend, and provided there is sperm present, they will be fertilized. In fact, when males and females are kept together, the doe can become pregnant the day she gives birth to a litter. For that reason, it is a good idea to keep them apart, so as not to tire the doe too much with continuous pregnancy and lactation.
The gestation period for a doe is just 28 to 34 days. Pick the doe up by grabbing the scruff of the neck under the ears, and put her into the buck’s cage, not the other way around. He should show an interest almost immediately, but we like to leave the doe in there for an hour or two (provided they get along), just to make sure he gets her scent. He should hump her and then fall off when finished.
Record the day when you put them together. About two weeks later, you can palpate the doe to check if she is pregnant. Place her on a flat surface, holding her by the scruff of the neck with one hand. With the other hand, reach under her belly and gently feel the sides. The babies feel like marbles. If you don’t feel anything, put her back in with her lucky suitor. If she is pregnant she will generally resist his advances.
We’ve had one or two problems with breeding in the past. First, our favorite buck stopped producing litters. We had no idea how old he was, as we got him fully mature. We picked him up and checked his testicles – they were shriveled sacks. We gave him a rest from breeding, and upped his food, but there was no change, so we replaced him.
We’ve also had a couple of does that didn’t get pregnant due to being overweight. We used to have a feeder as well as fresh greens that we gave them every day. Most of our rabbits did not overeat, but some did, so we removed the feeder and instead put out food each day. We continue to use a feeder for the weaned babies, as they can eat as much as they want.
The great thing about rabbits is that they grow and breed fast, so it is easy and cheap to add new stock and freshen up the bloodlines. If you see a characteristic that is undesirable, cull the rabbit – you do not want to breed bad qualities into your line.
Right before the doe is due to give birth, she will remove fur from her belly to make a nest. Make sure you have provided her with a nest box and straw well before she is due, as it is always best to leave her alone for a few days before and after birth. If a doe becomes distressed close to the delivery time she can kill or abandon her kits (babies).
Do not mess with the newborns, when your rabbits are new. Once they are used to you, they won’t mind your scent in their nest.
The babies are born blind and remain so for the first 10 or so days. You may be worried that you never see the doe nursing her young. Don’t be. She will generally nurse only once a day, and rabbits are usually more active at night. To make sure a doe is caring for her young, check that the babies look fat and warm. If they are, you have nothing to worry about.
Kits can be weaned at 4-6 weeks old, depending on their weight. If a baby is less than a pound, leave her with the mother. You should also not remove all the kits at once. This can cause discomfort to the mother, as she will still have some milk, and nothing will be relieving the pressure. We weigh the litter at four weeks old. If they are all doing good, we remove the majority, leaving the mother with the two or three smallest. These benefit from less competition and the mother will not become engorged.
Once a rabbit is older, it is easy to tell the sex. By 12 weeks or so, a male’s testicles show, one on either side of his genitalia. However, in a younger rabbit you will have to do the following.
Place the young rabbits on its back, either in the crook of your arm or on your lap. In between its hind legs there is an opening. Put your fingers near the tail and your thumb on the belly side of the opening. Press gently down and slightly apart. The genitalia will come out. A doe’s vagina appears as a slit, while a buck’s penis is round and protrudes slightly.
It is hard to tell the sex of a very young rabbit, one that is less than 4 weeks old. If you are sexing your rabbits young, be sure to do so again before they become sexually active (12 weeks), just in case. When we first got rabbits, one of the ones we bought was a very young one. She was a lively little thing and we called her Frisky. As she got older, we noticed her behaving towards the older females in a manner that more than lived up to her name. We checked her sex again and discovered she was a he. Frisky turned out to be a very prolific buck!
A rabbit, or even ten, does not eat or drink much, which makes them a very low cost animal to keep. And your return is high. Not only do you get great quality meat and furs, but you also get viscera and manure to put into other feed systems.
Rabbits need fresh, clean water. The simplest way to do this is with a commercial water bottle or water nipples. The rabbits will learn how to use the nipple fast and will not be able to contaminate it with their droppings.
To train a rabbit to use the nipple, place a dish of water beneath the nipple. Then, after a few days, you can remove the dish. They will know where to go for water and will smell it in the nipple. Once you have your first rabbits trained, the rest will follow their example.
You have four main types of rabbits: bucks, pregnant or lactating does, “dry” does (ones who are not pregnant or lactating), and juniors. The bucks and dry does require only enough feed to maintain their weight and health, so will be on the lower end of the scale listed below. The mothers will be on the middle to top of the scale, as they have to provide food for their babies, but do not want to get overweight. The weaned young, or juniors, need the highest end of the scale.
So, in general, a rabbit needs between 2 and 4% of their body weight in food per day. Of that food, there needs to be between 10 and 16% protein content. If you feed your rabbits pellets, you will not need to provide them with any additional salt. However, if you feed them fresh food, a little added salt can be beneficial. You can put a piece of salt block in their pens and they will eat what they wish (usually what they need).
You can feed your rabbits pellets, a concentrate food that usually contains everything they need, along with some hay for roughage. However, rabbits far prefer to have fresh greens.
You can give them grass, alfalfa, weeds and grains. There are also some vegetables from the garden that are good for them. You should always ease a rabbit into any new food. If you are trying something new, give it to them in very small quantities along with a lot of food that they are used to eating. If you see any adverse effect, take the new item out and add it to your list of things to avoid.
There are lots of sites online that offer lists of plants to avoid and ones that are fine. Be sure to consult these, but continue to test new plants in small quantities.
Alfalfa, Amaranth, American Sycamore (leaves, twigs, bark), Apples (not the seed), Arugula, Asparagus
Banana, Barley, Basil, Beans (not soy), Beets, Blackberry, Borage, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Buckwheat
Cantaloupe (not skin), Caraway, Carrot, Cattail, Chard, Chickweed, Chicory, Chives, Cilantro, Clover (not sweet clover), Comfrey(best dried), Corn, Cottonwood, Cucumber
Dandelion, Dill, Dogweed, Fennel, Goldenrod, Grains, Grapes, Hackberry (leaves and twigs), Hazelnut leaf, Jerusalem Artichoke, Jewlweed, Kudzu, Lavendar, Lambsquarters, Lemon Balm
Maple, Marigold, Marjoram, Mesquite, Millet, Milo, Mint(not to pregnant/nursing does), Morning glory, Mulberry, Mustard Greens, Nettle, Oats P Parsley, Parsnips, Peas, Peach (no seed), Pear (no seed), Plantain, Poplar, Pumpkin, Purslane
Radish tops, Raspberry, Root vegetables, Rose, Rye, Sage, Savory, Shepherd’s purse, Sorghum, Sow thistle, Squash, Strawberry, Sunflowers, Sweet Potato, Tomato (ripe only), Turnips, Vetch, Watercress, Watermelon, Wheat, Willow, Yarrow
Your main choice of housing for your rabbits is colony or cage.
The most common way to keep rabbits is in cages, about 2 feet by 4 feet by 1 1/2 feet tall. You can hang the cages from the rafters, put them on the ground, or stack them on top of each other (so long as you place a tray in between them to collect, and clean out, the droppings). This is a very space efficient method and allows for easy management of food, breeding and record keeping.
The Colony method is where you keep your rabbits all together in a larger space. The advantage of this system is that it seems to more closely imitate their natural social structure, which can produce happier, healthier animals. However, it is difficult to keep track of the pregnancies and litters, you can lose babies through trampling, and it is more work to clean out the pens. If you are planning to raise them colony style, you must take your fencing down into the ground (preferably until you hit bedrock!), especially for the females, who will burrow. Also bear in mind that the fencing low to the ground will have to be of a fairly thick metal or plastic, as chicken wire will rust away and leave holes.
No matter what system you decide upon, you should provide adequate shelter and protection. The heat bothers rabbits more than the cold, so shade from sun (and rain) is paramount. And something else to consider is that it is not just humans that think that rabbits are delicious – make sure that the rabbits are safe from predators (we have an electric fence surrounding our whole rabbit area).
We have used both colony and cage. When we were thinking about getting rabbits, all we could find at first was information on cages, and we just weren’t quite happy with the idea, it didn’t seem to fit our style of doing things. So we kept looking around and eventually found out about colonies. It sounded great.
We built a 20ft x 10ft barn, dividing the space into a feed storage area and four pens – the largest for the females and young babies, one for each of the two males, and one for the weaned babies. The pens had wire on the bottom, then dirt, then straw. Each pen then opened to an outside space. The fence went down into the ground at least a foot or until it hit bedrock. We put a bunch of “toys” out there for them to hide under, like old tires, satellite dishes, tubes, etc. We also threw any Juniper limbs that we cut for posts in there – they like to gnaw on them, and we get our posts stripped of bark.
We used this system for a while, but found it had some inherent problems. Although the rabbits seemed happy living together like this, we were losing babies. The does would often deliver in burrows they made in the outside pen, and in winter we found several dead from the cold. And when they made their nests inside, they would sometimes lose young to trampling. So we started using cages for the does that were expecting. A few days before she was due, we would take her out of the pen and place her in a cage with a litter box. She stayed there until her young opened their eyes (10 days or so). This was a decent compromise, but we would still lose babies once we put them back in the pen.
In a colony, it is also hard to control food. The alpha doe can sometimes get overweight, while the lesser ones don’t get enough to eat. Also a lactating doe needs more food than the others, but it is hard to control. If a female is overweight, she will not breed.
When we built a barn to offer all our animals inside shelter, we converted a large part of it for rabbits. We gave each rabbit two forms of habitat. One is a cage, where the feeders and water nipples are kept. The other is a buried burrow area with a door to the cage. The burrow stays a constant temperature, where the rabbits can keep cool. It is also a hidden, private place where they can have their litters and hide away. We have a hinged door on each burrow, so that we can add bedding and check on the litters, but for the most part, we stay out of there.
We also have doors in between each cage. This enables us to join several cages and burrows together, so that the does can have company.
We have loved this system. It is versatile, efficient, easy to manage, and the rabbits love the burrows. The productivity is considerably higher than our previous colony setup.
Rabbit manure consists of small, round pellets that are dry and clean. It is a very valuable resource for the homestead. Unlike most manures, it is not “hot”, which means that you can put it directly onto garden beds without harming the plants. However, it also retains a lot of nutrition for omnivores.
Rabbits eat grass and other plants, and can break these feeds down so that they are more digestible to animals like pigs, poultry, and even mealworms.
We have our cages raised up off the ground and a collection area below. We put down bedding and let all the manure and urine fall down there. We then have this area sealed off with orchard netting and let the chickens come and go as they please. They pick through the manure for maggots and tidbits. We have no problems with flies.
Then, every couple of weeks, we move the manure to a compost bin. It’s easy to scrape up and shovel out.